My son recently came to me about a history project that he was working on. He needed to do a presentation to the students in his class explaining Realism, Impressionism and Post Impressionism. Yay! He came to the right person! At last, I could contribute something beyond the dull glaze that I have been sporting when he discusses calculus. I had recently taken him and his friend to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Impressionists painting ended up being both boys favorites. One down, two to go.
I raced upstairs to my studio and dug out my worn out text book, The History of Art. “Read these two chapters and you will have a better understanding.” Then I started reading to chapters, hmmm. Did I have a better understanding? He had done enough research to have accumulated artists names associated with each movement but the why’s and meaning behind why the artists needed to express themselves through art and the how was lost on him. I scanned the material, looking for sound bytes that would make sense. It was trickier than I imagined.
As I talked, he kept telling me to break it down into simple words that high school students could understand. Have we really come to this when we discuss art, I thought, bullet points, sound bytes?
Artist of note: Gustave Courbet
Sound byte: An artist must rely on his own direct experience. “I cannot paint an angel, because I have never seen one,” claimed Courbet. He painted life sized paintings, often having people pose in his studio without the sentiment of previous artists. He painted workers of the era with dignity and without asking for sympathy.
When I went on the try to explain the “visual manifesto” of Manet’s “The Luncheon on the Grass” where the artist asserted himself to paint what ever he wanted to on aesthetic alone, it was my son’s eyes that gained a dull glaze.
As I read further about this being the beginning of a new way of thinking of Art for Art’s Sake and whether or not Manet actually believed this himself. The artists began to play with light and dark, patches of color and brush strokes just for the sake of the canvas and started to believe that their first loyalty was to their canvas, not to the outside world. Where that artist’s painting for the sake of the canvas? Do artists egos let them actually do that?
Trying to explain this to a young man that sees artists of today play and experiment was a difficult thing to do. The story has to be told within the constraints of what society expected to see from artists in that time period. I explained to him that art and story are told in many different ways today not merely on canvas but through film, photography. I even explained that some recent fashion shows I had seen when telling a complete “vision” of the artist.
He was engaged and he got it (bullet points aside, I considered this a big success!) He asked a follow up question, “When was the last great art movement?” Oh! He got it more than I realized and it has left me asking the same thing. Certainly Contemporary Artists have made an impact, but the label itself seems quite old fashioned and uninteresting. When I searched terms like, “Remodernism” and ran across the the term “Stuckism.” I can hardly imagine the response of a teenage boy if I referred to a group of artists as “The Stuckists…”
This got me wondering what society expects from artists today? Do artists have anything to push past and explore anymore that could possibly be labeled as a “movement”?
This sound byte thing was not doing Art History any justice but at least we where having a conversation.